Nicaragua ‘Armed Groups’ Raise Specter of Contra Warfare

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In Nicaragua, a shadowy organization claims to have launched a successful attack against the security forces as part of their crusade against President Daniel Ortega, whose government denies that the group are any more than countryside bandits. Where does the truth lie?

The group, which calls itself the Democratic Command Front 3-80, claims it attacked a group of police on May 3 in Nicaragua’s northern Jinotega department, seriously wounding two officers and causing the police to flee. The security forces contested this, stating that the attack was in fact launched on eight civilians, all part of a single family, in a different part of the country. The military confirmed that six men, wearing military uniform and armed with AK-47s, carried out this attack, but described them as cattle rustlers.

As Nicaragua Dispatch details, a few days later an individual claiming to be a commander of Front 3-80 called a local reporter and stated that his group was committed to carrying out an “armed struggle” against Ortega. The phone call echoed public statements released in 2011 in the name of Front 3-80, which declared that they would “continue to grow until there are democracy and institutions in Nicaragua,” adding, “We have taken up arms because this country has a dictatorship government, a violator of the constitution.”

Front 3-80 is just one of several groups claiming to be made up of rearmed Contras, determined to fight the Ortega regime. The groups have adopted a range of names, from the Patriotic Nicaraguan Command (Copan) to the Armed Forces for National Salvation (FASN), many of them references to Contra leaders active during the 1980s civil war.

The security forces deny the very existence of these groups, describing them as thieves, drunks, and common criminals. “Those who say they’ve formed an organization could not sustain a situation of combat with the military, because they don’t exist,” one military spokesman bluntly told La Prensa last year.

But by the military’s own admission, the May 3 attacks were carried out by an armed cell equipped with weapons far too sophisticated for mere cattle rustlers. The Contra groups, who claimed earlier this year that they were now united beneath an umbrella organization, have made a point of emphasizing their political agenda. “We are not criminal bands, we are armed commandos, fighting for liberty, democracy and justice in our country,” the rebels told El Nuevo Diario in 2011.

Adding to their patina of legitimacy, several prominent rearmed Contra fighters have been killed in mysterious circumstances in the past year. If the military’s claims are correct and there are no rearmed rebels in Nicaragua, it raises the question of who considered the victims enough of a threat to kill them. First, ex-Contra leader Jose Gabriel Garmendia, alias “Comandante Jahob,” was shot to death under mysterious circumstances in February 2011, as InSight Crime reported. In early 2012, another former Contra fighter, Santos Guadalupe Borges, alias “Pablo Negro,” the alleged leader of the Front 3-80, was shot and killed in Honduras near the Nicaraguan border. And as Nicaragua Dispatch reported, an alleged ally of Yahob, known as “Comandante Byron,” was assassinated on February 29.

It is possible that the May 3 assault was intended as revenge for these killings. After Pablo Negro’s death, Front 3-80 issued a statement declaring that they would strike against the government in reprisal. “We are going to take several measures and there will be pressure in the political arena as well as the military,” a man claiming to be a rearmed leader told a local TV station.

If a rearmed Contra group was behind the armed attack in May, it would be one indication that, at the very least, the groups have the arms and the will to carry out violent ambushes. But, for now, the real battle may be forcing the Ortega administration to admit their existence, something which is extremely unlikely to happen unless the groups prove themselves capable of carrying out a large-scale attack. As one self-proclaimed Front 3-80 commander told La Prensa, “It’s not convenient for the government to legitimize our activity. They will lie to us and always say that we’re a criminal band. Why? Because if they say internationally that they have guerrillas and armed opposition in Nicaragua it will get bad politically.”

Image, above, shows “Comandante Jahob” with the Contras in 1982

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